Stephen King Strikes (Out) Again

So, the day after the eclipse I sat in my living room thinking about what to read before dinner. Currently, I’m reading John Barth’s The Sot-weed Factor. But I wasn’t in the mood for Ebenezer Cooke’s foppish shenanigans. That is not to say that I am not enjoying Barth’s novel. I am. It’s great. If you want to read all about it you can do so here.

I needed something short before dinner. So I pulled from my shelf a used hardbound copy of Stephen King’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Yes, used. I don’t think King’s livelihood orbits around whether or not I bought a new copy; besides, over the years I did my fare share of supporting King by purchasing his books new.

Anyway, onward…

Admittedly, I am late to the Stephen King short story fan club; and my membership, at best, is dubious. In recent months I read his latest collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. It was creepy and enjoyable. Still, I have always been more of a King novel fan; mostly, the older stuff.

The first story in Nightmares & Dreamscapes I had read in May. The next story, “The End of the Whole Mess,” was my pre-dinner read. I should preface this by saying that I’m one of those guys who looks at a copyright page in a short story collection to see where a story was first published. “The End of the Whole Mess” was first published in Omni magazine. How bad can it be if it was published in one of my favorite magazines from when I was a teen? I thought. Plenty, I soon discovered.

If you have not read the story, here’s the skinny: the younger brother of a writer, a genius, discovers a chemical that curbs anger and hostility. The genius thinks he can bring about world peace by spreading the chemical around the world via an erupting volcano. A side-effect of the chemical causes dementia and death. It’s a Stephen King story. So there’s not a happy ending.

The premise of the story is thin (read: lacking the suspension of disbelief). I’ve become adept at spotting such things since I have written stories over the years that were also thin where premise is concerned. Be it a carpenter, a surgeon, or an artist, we all learn from our mistakes.

As a cautionary tale about meddling with science and nature, “The End of the Whole Mess” works. That’s not my problem here. No, what ruined this tale for me was King’s decision to get experimental at the end by portraying the narrator Howard Forney’s ultimate demise by way of garbled word order, misspellings, and an icing on that cake that will leave readers to discover on their own.

I tend to read short story collections slowly. A collection of Nabokov stories took me three years since I’d read one, put the collection down, pick it up again later, etc. Nightmares & Dreamscapes will take me a year or more. King has always been a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of writer. And I commend him for it. In one hundred years people may still be reading Nabokov. They may even still be reading King. Who’s to tell what the future will bring?

What troubles me about “The End of the Whole Mess” is that, for me at least, it smacks of one of those stories published just because it had King’s name on it. Then again, maybe not. For me, the worth of a horror tale is in its portrayal of events, in its premise, in its characterization, in its outcome, and its lasting effect.

The next time I want to read a short story before dinner maybe I’ll reach for another collection by a different author. Or maybe the next story in Nightmares & Dreamscapes will be more rewarding.

The writing game can be hit or miss. Even American institutions like Stephen King can’t pen perfect works all the time.

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